Why do some nations succeed?
Why do some nations succeed - and others fail? Presidential candidate Mitt Romney offered an opinion -- that it's all about culture -- and he suffered withering criticism for that view. His assertion that a superior culture explained why the Middle East's only democracy was more successful than the Palestinian territories was predictably called racist by the Palestinians. They complained, as well, that the remark overlooked the trade restrictions imposed on them. Oh well, blame it all on Israel.
Romney's remarks were rooted in the rich intellectual legacy of David S. Landes, a distinguished Harvard scholar whose lucid critiques on economic development, in numerous books and articles, prompted many too call him a neoconservative. Critics labeled him a "Eurocentric" -- a view he embraced because, well, a Eurocentric analysis did indeed explain Europe's economic success compared to other parts of the world.
David S. Landes died on August 17, at age 89, and his remarkable academic career is the subject of a lengthy obituary in the New York Times. Five years ago, Professor Landes suffered a debilitating stroke and, according to his son Richard, had been in failing health since his wife, the former Sonia Tarnopol, died last April. Professor Landes was a professor emeritus of economics at Harvard University and retired professor of history at Harvard University. Scholars whom he influenced included Niall Ferguson, Jeffrey Herf, Jeffrey Sacks, Leah Zell Wagner
In Sunday's obituary in The New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote:
David S. Landes, a distinguished Harvard scholar of economic history, saw tidal movements in the rise of seemingly small things. He suggested that the development of eyeglasses made precision tools possible. Maybe, he said, using chopsticks helped Asian workers gain the manual dexterity needed to make microprocessors.
In his 482-page "Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World" (1983), Professor Landes, who died last month at 89, examined the growth of the industrial age through the history of timepieces, tracing their origin to medieval European monasteries; monks, he wrote, needed something to tell them when to gather for a regular round of group prayer.
To Professor Landes, the development of timepieces -- more than steamships -- drove the industrial age by molding the very culture of capitalism. Factory owners, for example, awarded watches to punctual workers, while workers bought watches to make sure they were not being misused by the factory clock.
Professor Landes was preoccupied by the importance of culture in shaping economic and social progress or stagnation. His most influential work, "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor" (1998), answered the question posed in its title (a play on that of Adam Smith's classic work) by pointing to the importance of the Protestant work ethic and European attitudes toward science and technology.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, acknowledged Professor Landes as an influence. "There are superior cultures and ours is one of them," Mr. Romney wrote in his 2010 book, "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness." "As David Landes observed, 'Culture makes all the difference.'"
Professor Landes was the father of Richard A. Landes, a history professor and author at Boston University. He blogs at The Augean Stables and has written volumes of incisive analysis about the mainstream media's distortions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Augean Stables, Richard Landes recently posted a number of articles and posts about his father, including some articles he'd co-authored with his father. Commenting on the Times' obituary, Landes took issue with two minor points, based in part on an interview he gave The Times. His criticisms concerned a joint statement he and his father issued to the Boston Globe that defended Romney's controversial comments regarding Israeli and Palestinian culture. Regarding that joint statement, The Times pointed out: "The statement also sought to pay Palestinians a compliment by lauding their culture and praising their economic success in comparison with that of other Arab peoples. "Much of that comes from their close association with the Zionists," the statement said of Palestinians.
But Landes, at The Augean Stables, complained that the passage "sounds awfully condescending. Read the original."
Landes also pointed out that The Times had given a false impression regarding the joint statement, and he offered this clarification:
"It was not a joint statement, but rather an interview with me that made it clear my father could not comment himself, although I did say that I spoke both for my father and myself. The full argument was published as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, amplified with links at this blog. Based on many conversations with my father, I feel safe to say he would agree, but on the other hand, he might not have expressed himself in the way that I did, and it would be a shame if anyone got the impression he supported Romney's candidacy. He was a life-long democrat (unlike his father), and never once that I knew, voted for a Republican presidential candidate."
David Saul Landes: April 29, 1924 -- August 17, 2013. Rest in Peace.